How to French Braid Your Hair

A retelling of "Upstairs Downstairs" from "Owl At Home," with apologies to Arnold Lobel
by Sarabeth

(Details have been rearranged and omitted to protect the innocent.)

Once upon a summer day, Ivy got up really early. So did her parents. Amazingly, after two hours of pooping, playing, nursing, complaining, nursing, and playing while complaining, Ivy fell back asleep. Even more amazingly still, so did her parents.

Two hours after that, I awoke again with a start, clutching the edge of the bed since I was trying to make room for Ivy. I felt suddenly late for breakfast.

Sven and Heidi and Ella were leaving on Sunday! This thought hit me like a ton of bricks. How could we ever...

"MAMA! MAMA!"

"What!? What is it, Eliza?"

Extracting her finger: "Booger."

Ah. I staggered out of bed and found a tissue.

Heading downstairs, grateful that Jeff had started breakfast, I pondered how our neighbor, who'd given birth to her her fourth baby the week before, was having an eerily familiar journey with baby's tongue- and lip-tie, difficult feeding, stress...

BARF. Ivy looked up with surprise. I mopped her upchuck off the floor, and went back upstairs. Changing into a new shirt, I tried to remember: what had I been about to do? Oh yeah, my hairbrush. I reinserted Ivy into the baby carrier. Sure would be nice to clip my nails! But definitely: hairbrush first. But both of those things are hard with baby. Will wait till later. Wow, sure sounds like there are thirty children downstairs arguing! Am definitely late for breakfast.

Downstairs again: "I don't LIKE this breakfast!" Or rather, Eliza didn't like the quantity of her breakfast, which she knew, without taking a single bite of food, to be too little. She screeched and whined. She was warned. She continued to screech and whine. She was brought up to her room.

After a fifteen minute tantrum, she re-joined the family.

Ben, meanwhile, was a fount of negativity: "The eggs are too runny! ...Wow, that thing's terrible! ...Is that the WORST ONE in the world? ...I ALWAYS have to do the horrible jobs!" Etc. etc. etc. When he wasn't complaining, he was asking for things: "When can we have shepherd's pie? Why don't you want to read Eragon? When can we go blueberry picking? What is the best knot for climbing? Why can't I have a date with just you, no Eliza and Jem, so we can do something SPECIAL??" and on and on and on. Jem was a little quieter, since he was absorbed in the task of attempting to find the exact best way to annoy his brother. Happily for him, he's got at least fifteen solid techniques that work every time, and he develops and refines new possibilities daily.

I was getting something started in the kitchen before I ate, and couldn't help noticing the pain in my jaw: I've been grinding my teeth like crazy. I was dreaming about my new orthodontic appliance - maybe it would help...

"OW!!!" Ivy grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled, hard. Okay, I really needed that hairbrush.

Back upstairs. But I really had to pee. I wondered when the last time was that I just Went To Pee, exactly when I felt like it, without Putting It Off Till Later?? I couldn't remember.

Okay, since I was washing my hands anyway, it was a good time to insert contacts...

RUMBLE. Oh yeah - those gnawing sensations in my gut reminded me that I should really eat my breakfast, which had probably gotten cold on my plate. But first, Ivy's kvetching reminded me: time for Ivy to go in for a nap.

Nurse. Nurse. Nurse. Jeff had to head out, so let's see if I could Creep Away from the Napping One...Success!

Downstairs again: maybe if I Chewed Quickly, Ivy would stay asleep for my whole meal! Except my hair kept falling in my face. Crap...that brush was still upstairs.

Chew. Chew. Chew. So nice to eat with both hands free! Oh, but here's a depressing thought: today we'd learn how much our car repair would be. On the driveway the other day, our car had suddenly developed a Terrible Sound, and it was now at the mechanic. Gotta add to today's list: Figure Out What Vehicle to Use to Pick Up The Meat (hundreds of pounds of beef, enough for a year, waiting at the butcher's).

How was it that every single time I picked up my phone, a child wanted to talk and/or whine and/or complain at me? This made me feel simultaneously Totally Annoyed and Desirous of Freedom and Privacy and Alone Time, as well as Completely Guilty (what mother wants to use her cell phone more than she wants to hang out with her own children?? Answer: Don't answer that).

Also: our downstairs tenant had just gotten home after many weeks' vacation, and stuffed Too Much Laundry in the washer last night. I had been asked to give him a Laundry Tutorial.

But first, must finish breakfast. And maybe pee again. Oh, but there was Ivy, waking up from her nap with a howl, so gotta wait on the peeing.

Upstairs. After collecting, comforting, and nursing Baby, I peed. Then, let's see...once again, I was holding a baby who didn't want me to sit down: possible tasks included making mochi and vacuuming the house, although Karen was now with Eliza so I should go find the boys and hang out with them.

Downstairs. Ben and Jem, absolutely amazingly, had found separate things to do this morning (highly unusual). Ben was with Karen and Eliza, and I should reward Jem for having taken a short break from Complete Antagonism!

After vacuuming, I invited Jem for a walk.

There were two totally peak moments. First was when Jem was reaching for some high-up blackberries, and said: "I have to go around that way. If I walk this way, then I'd completely destroy this whole spider web, and it's AWESOME!" Second was when we were walking along and Jem was swinging his arms with this carefree lurch that you can only pull off when you are seven-about-to-be-eight-next-week and walking along on a gorgeous summer day with the prospect of fresh berries ahead. We passed a gap in the pine trees and Jem just suddenly veered off to the right, saying, "Wow, it's AWESOME in here!"

Can you remember the last time you changed course while walking, just because it FELT good, without thinking about the choice or worrying about the time or whether you might be late if you went that way or if it was really the most OPTIMAL route...? Unfortunately, I can't.

Eventually, we headed back. Jem didn't want me to go home, but I was already feeling late for making lunch, and my unbrushed hair was really hot on my neck and being plucked gradually toward baldness by Ivy's groping, sticky hands.

But meanwhile: the laundry! It had to get moved along, and hung to dry. And must get Eliza in for her nap (and make Note To Self that since she refused to even think about pooping first, I should go back up there in fifteen minutes when I heard the sound of the potty scraping around over the kitchen ceiling, to wipe her butt and re-tuck her into bed).

Downstairs. But now, Ivy really wanted to nurse again, and Jeff was about to come home with the groceries.

Upstairs again. Nurse. Nurse. Nurse. Down in the kitchen, I could hear Ben and Jem, now discovering all sorts of ways to tease each other. My god, could it really be that difficult to find other interesting things to do with your time, in this vast and wide-open world?! It would appear that the answer is "yes".

Downstairs I went, once Ivy was asleep again. And here came Ben's questions, often echoed by Jem (and no, it does not help my brain to learn that there is a name for this, when the younger sibling of a Person With Developmental Delays exhibits "copycat" behaviors). Oh my lord, the QUESTIONS! Sometimes they come from so may directions at once that they ricochet off one another and bounce into my brain while bypassing any reflexes or conscious thought.

Mama, what's for lunch? ...but I don't LIKE that! What's for dinner? Mama, how does moss attach? Mama, why don't my gourds grow as good as Jem's? But WHY don't they grow as good? ...But you SHOULD know! You've GROWN gourds! Mama, when can we have shepherd's pie? ...But we NEVER have it! You SAY we'll have it soon, and we NEVER have it! (Why do I have to take the compost out? Ben NEVER has to, and he just sits around doing fun stuff all the time! And Mama - if you mixed together purple and green and sort of blue, what color would it make?) Mama, How come I have to take the stinky compost out? Why can't JEM do it?! You ALWAYS ask me!

And then. We heard from the car mechanic: our emergency brake needed to be replaced, along with both rear brakes that got damaged because we inadvertently drove on the E brake (how the hell are you supposed to KNOW when your emergency brake has broken??? It's for EMERGENCIES, for crying out loud). The verdict: between $2200 and $2800.

SWEET JESUS. Jeff had to go upstairs for a phone meeting, and I fumed and huffed and puffed and told Ben and Jem, PLEASE find something else to do besides argue and tease! And don't ask me for anything, either! Also, it would be super awesome if you could just go outside so that I can eat my lunch in TOTAL SILENCE because even though it's not your fault, my brain is feeling completely overwhelmed and I want to just THINK!! Is that too much to ask, one lunchtime eaten ALONE?!

Ben and Jem got a tiny bit quiet. I read one paragraph in a magazine. Next moment, I realized that Ben had started washing the sink full of dirty dishes, and I felt COMPLETELY and utterly guilty about having said I wanted to be alone and that they should go away. How could I desire to read or do anything besides gaze at their adorable faces?? I put down my magazine and said, "Hey, thanks for doing the dishes! My lunch tastes even better, knowing that they'll be done! Sorry I snapped at you guys....I was just feeling pretty bad about the cost of the car repair."

Then I called the car mechanic, to find out whether he was maybe just pulling our leg about the possibly-approaching-$3000 repair bill. He really really really wasn't. Replacing the brakes and the brake cables and the emergency brake and a bunch of other electronic bits turns out to be really really really fucking expensive. On the bright side, we didn't have a fatal incident on the road due to the brakes' malfunctioning! I tried to muster gratitude.

Upstairs, Ivy woke up. After we nursed and peed, I came back down and helped Ben and Jem burn/melt the ends of about 37 different pieces of rope to prevent their unraveling. Some ends weren't done perfectly enough, and there were so many melt requests that I finally had to postpone further end-melting for another day.

Unfortunately, the sole purpose of melting the rope ends appeared to be so that Ben could compare whose rope ends were melted The Best, and so Jem could use his rope ends to poke Ben.

Ivy wasn't wanting to sleep, she was done nursing, she didn't want to be on the floor, and she most certainly didn't want me to hold her and sit still. Which made every attempt at stationary household tasks or sending e-mails just...not work out very well. At all. Actually, it was frustrating me so much that I felt like clawing at something - I wanted to complete a TASK!! And finish SOME thing!! Anything!! As long as it felt PRODUCTIVE!

"How about...you go outside!" I told Ben. "You cannot sit down here arguing with your brother any more!"

"I don't want to. I want to just Listen [to audiobooks]."

"Okay, well then, Jem: GO OUTSIDE! SOMEBODY, GO PLAY, so that I can SEND THE E-MAIL that I wanted to send an hour ago, and I don't have to listen to anyone arguing, and you can GO DO WHATEVER YOU WANT TO DO BESIDES ARGUE AND ASK ME TO ENTERTAIN YOU!!"

"I WOULD go outside," Jem said mournfully, "but I want to go with someone."

"I don't want to be outside," Ben said. "I'm going to Listen."

"Go find a friend!" I told Jem. "Go see if M. is home, or O. or S. or A. or ANYONE! How about T.? Go bike! play! Rollerblade!"

"No one's home," said Jem, "and I don't like T."

"Why not?!"

"Because I don't really know him, and I don't want to know him."

I turned around in exasperation, and...Eliza had woken up! And wasn't even screaming. That was good news.

My hair was super hot on my neck. So hot that beads of sweat were forming even while Ivy yanked by the fistful, removing a few strands each time. I really needed to get that hairbrush. NOW was the time. But first, to separate the children:

"Ben, why don't you go berry picking with your brother?"

"No, it's too far."

Jem: "But why can't we go together? Why can't YOU come, Mama??"

"Children!" I said. "I am going upstairs. I am not going to try to do all the tasks that I was planning to do, I'll forget about the e-mail, I won't start making dinner, and instead we are going for a walk. I need ten minutes. I am going to brush my hair, and nurse Ivy, and then we will go."

"Oh, GOOD!" Jem said, with such relief that it was as if he had not experienced loving attention for ANYONE AT ALL for over six weeks. It would be SO GOOD to hang out with me, his fantastically loving and attentive mother! Of COURSE he could wait ten minutes.

"But I'm ready NOW!" Eliza wailed pitifully.

"I know," I said, "and I'm not. I'll be down in ten minutes."

Ah, to get the sweaty hair off my neck! But first, I really had to pee. I dashed upstairs. Holding a squirming Ivy, I relieved myself, and didn't even drop her. It would save so much time if humans didn't have to urinate! Then: Ivy peed, in the toilet like a pro. I was really getting good at this Elimination Communication stuff! Okay, now for the hairbrush...

"Mama!" called Eliza. "Can you give me a ponytail? My neck is hot." I had been trying to convince her to use ponytails to reduce head-sweatiness for WEEKS, but up until this exact moment every attempt had been completely rebuffed, since she opted for the lovely matted-down hairstyle favored by many small girls (such as myself at age three)...held in place, in her case, by between 6 and 9 headbands. And now, I had a golden opportunity: a chance to fix my daughter's hair!!

"Just a moment," I called to Eliza. "I would LOVE to do your hair! But I can't do it right this minute."

"I'll do it!" Jem said helpfully.

"Okay," I said, racing downstairs, "here's the comb and barrettes. I'll be down in ten minutes from NOW!!"

I raced back up the stairs again. I had put Ivy down to play with her toys, and so that she could practice this neat new trick she's developing - she gets her knees up underneath herself and hoists up into a tiny, saggy all-fours position. When she launches herself forward, she can more easily grab for toys and shove them into her mouth. And then when she is back on her stomach again, she excitedly and only slightly spastically kicks her arms and legs into the air at the same time, like she's about to take off. Only she's not taking off, she's kind of reverse-flopping. UpDown. UpDown. UpDown! And this is what she was doing when I ran in to check on her. Only...she wasn't flopping. She was swimming! I hadn't put her diaper back on yet, and she was literally swimming, in an amazing pool of poop. A river of poop. An ocean of poop! I couldn't believe that such a small girl had contained so much poop, only moments before. Yet here it was, the moment had passed, and she was Absolutely Covered In Poop.

"...I'll need FIFTEEN minutes!" I yelled down the stairs, as I raced a dripping-with-poop Ivy into the bathtub, still wearing her dripping clothes.

I scrubbed the floor. I scrubbed the yoga mat, where Ivy had been playing. I scrubbed under the yoga mat. I scrubbed the drips on the way to the bathroom. I then scrubbed Ivy, got her some new clothes, and nursed her. She fell asleep.

"Aieeee!" screamed Eliza, from downstairs. "Jem's ponytail ISN'T RIGHT!!!!!"

"I will do it when I come down," I whisper-yelled in the direction of downstairs.

"...Look at this slip-knot!" Jem said loudly, suddenly appearing in the bedroom doorway.

"I will look when I'm done," I said, pointedly putting a finger to my lips.

Now Ben had appeared in the doorway too. "Why do you THINK my gourds are growing so well now, when before they weren't?" I don't know, I told him for the five-hundred-gazillionth time - this time in a whisper.

"I am not available to answer any more questions," I whispered to the boys. "GO. Downstairs! I will be down soon."

My hair was still sticking to my neck. Eliza screeched again. Ben and Jem started arguing as they stood in the bedroom doorway.

"I'm almost ready!" I whisper-yelled. "Just give me a little bit more time, and we will go. for. a. walk!"

Praise the lord, they went downstairs again. And now...ready to go! Except...Ivy was asleep. My hair! I could french-braid my hair NOW!!

Five minutes later, Ivy was still soundly sleeping. The three children downstairs were super ready to mutiny. I went down, braided Eliza's hair, and then Jeff was done with his phone call. He offered to keep an ear out for Ivy while he was working (a surefire technique to shorten a baby's nap, if you ever want to try it yourself), and the kids and I went for a walk.

For the first time all day, since I wasn't trying to do anything else, my children's company was enjoyable. SO much better. SUCH a relief! Berry pickings were slim, but there was minimal arguing.

I sighed deeply and reminded myself that all the laundry and cooking and cleaning and organizing and e-mails were better abandoned FORVER, so that I could enjoy my children's company! Who needs a clean house, or cooked meals, or bills paid? This is, on the one hand, a cliched Thing People Say. And yet, on the other hand....isn't it nice to eat meals? And live in a semi-clean environment? And remember to pay bills and go to appointments etc. etc. etc.? Nobody ever has a real good response to these follow up questions, when you get right down to it.

On the way home, Ben offered to take Eliza to the playground (yes!), and Jem and I stopped along the path to say hello to neighbor. She watched Jem's blond head while he squatted down to investigate various objects behind the bushes. The sun was dappled through the trees, and sometimes Jem's hair looked like bits of sunlight itself.

"He reminds me so much of my son D.," she said, referring to a now-grown, lovely young man who had just received his PhD in forest ecology. "He's just so enthusiastic about the outdoors!"

I beamed, and said, "Yes, I feel like we're doing something right! He really appreciates the woods, and just being outside! I'm really so glad about that."

At this moment, Jem reappeared from inside a large bush, carrying a single, oozing gooseberry. "See, this is what you can do with it!" Jem said, and carefully took aim: "There!" The gooseberry plopped on top of an unsuspecting ant, who wriggled out from underneath. After uncrimping its various appendages, the ant began to eat.

"Jem!" I said, "that was NOT very nice!"

"I know," said Jem, unblinkingly.

"I guess I still have some work to do!" I told my neighbor, as I turned toward home.

And ain't that the truth.